Responding to Juleyka’s callout for stories of family members living under authoritarian rule, reader Colleen touches upon the experience of her Dutch stepmother:
She spent four years in a Japanese POW camp in Indonesia—from age 12 to 16, and her brother from age 9 to 13. When they were liberated they went back to Holland as displaced persons.
The experience was NEVER talked about. No counseling. Nothing.
When she reached 18 she joined the Dutch Royal Navy, immigrated to Canada in her mid 20s, then to the U.S about age 28. She met my father and, for some unknown reason, married him. They had two daughters, who are now 53 and 52 (I’m 73).
My step-mom was a lovely, funny, gracious, manipulative control freak. Her mother taught me how to cook. Oma [“grandmother” in German] did not speak English, and I did not speak Dutch or German, but we flowed through the kitchen with smiles, laughter, and words that neither understood. Needless to say my step-mom had a wonderful effect on my life.
The period was one of the most critical in Indonesian history. Under German occupation, the Netherlands had little ability to defend its colony against the Japanese army, and less than three months after the first attacks on Borneo, the Japanese navy and army overran Dutch and allied forces.
Initially, most Indonesians joyfully welcomed the Japanese, as liberators from their Dutch colonial masters. The sentiment changed, as Indonesians were expected to endure more hardship for the war effort. In 1944–1945, Allied troops largely bypassed Indonesia and did not fight their way into the most populous parts such as Java and Sumatra. As such, most of Indonesia was still under Japanese occupation at the time of their surrender, in August 1945.
Even if you don’t post it, I definitely recommend giving it a listen or at least looking through the transcript at the bottom of the page. It starts off on another tangent but ends up settling on a truly amazing story about how a group of Western adults in China during the time of the Japanese invasion kept their kids relatively protected from the worst of the horrors by turning the experience into an extended Girl Guides (Girl Scouts) camp as best they could.
This growing collection of stories makes me think of one we posted for our adulthood series, from a reader who grew up during the Communist dictatorship in Albania. Here’s a reposting of Valbona Bajraktari Schwab’s note:
Adulthood happened very early for me—the change, that is; that moment in time when you stop seeing the world around you as a big playground and you realize that it’s a minefield.
It was April 1985 in communist Albania. Our dictator, Enver Hoxha, had just passed away. I was 11 years old, in 5th grade, and as part of the youth leadership group of my middle school, I was asked to participate in the wake for our leader.
This meant waking up at 6am, lining up in the main boulevard of our capital city, Tirana, and walking slowly the line that snaked through the road all the way to the official building that houses the body of the dead dictator. I was there with a few teachers and a group of students ages 10-18. We knew we had to be serious and sad and cry often, but we didn’t know how long it would take and what a wake involved.
It took us a few hours before we got close to the building, but we didn’t realize that we would walk around the actual body of the dead. I remember in a blur the low lights, the big mound in the center of the room, flowers piled everywhere, but mostly the smell—sharp, chemical, rotting flowers and the faint smell of rotting flesh. I walked quickly in a daze, looking for the escape of the sun and fresh air outside.
As I am leaving a building, a reporter catches my eye and stops me. He said he wants to interview me and ask me questions about my impressions of the wake and my reaction to the death of our leader. I was confused and asked him what he wanted me to say. He said: “Well, say something about how you have met him when he was alive and how you’ll miss him now that he is gone and how he will live forever in our hearts and conclude with ‘farewell comrade Enver.’” Wanting to leave and join my friends, I quickly blurted out the lines in front of the camera and left.
When I arrived home about an hour later, I learned that my interview had been broadcast on the sole national TV channel. My grandmother said, “You spoke nicely but you didn’t look sad.”
I didn’t think much of it. I was anxious to see my mother, as I was tired and hadn’t seen her since early that morning and she was late from work. My mother came home three hours late. I ran to meet her but she stopped me before I had a chance to hug her, held me firmly by my shoulders and said, in the loudest voice I’d ever heard from her, “Never, ever go on national television again and never ever talk about political things with anyone.” She then hugged me tightly and started crying.
I learned that after my interview had been broadcasted on TV, everyone had seen it, since it was obligatory to follow the ceremony, even while at work. The representative of the communist party in my mother’s work place had seen it and had not been impressed by the fact that I didn’t cry. I didn’t show appropriate emotion for our leader’s death.
So, the natural answer was that my mother was a bad parent who hadn’t taught her daughter the appropriate emotional sentiment for the esteemed members of the party. He had called a political meeting right then and there, where the subject was my mother and her adherence to the communist principles as seen via her parenting skills. The meeting lasted three straight hours.
I thought she would be sent to jail or to a work camp and that I’d never see her again. Luckily, she was the first female surgeon of Albania and a very skilled one at that, so they spared her.
I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. My father was also one of many Dominican men who served under the dictatorship of Trujillo. My father was a man of his time. He arrived in the early ’50s to the capital of Santo Domingo from the province of Puerto Plata. Back then he was a young man with dreams of becoming a high-ranking individual in La Guardia de Trujillo. He could barely read and write but he always had the ambitions of being near El Generalissimo. Trujillo was his idol and he intended to emulate him at all costs.
In those days, the Dominican military was a way to upper mobility for men like my father—men of humble backgrounds and little education who aspired to rise up in the ranks and become a general or part of the military mystique that was well-respected and adored by many Dominicans of his generation. My father would eventually become the chauffeur for one of Trujillo’s senior ranking officers. This was a duty that he was very proud of because it was a highly coveted job.
“Trujillo took pride in the military,” my father would say “and if you were one of his soldiers, you were respected by all,” he would conclude. “Guardias were respected and nobody would dare commit a crime against a guardia,” my mother would add.
I remember listening to my parents relate stories after stories about how good things were when Trujillo was in power. According to them, life was a lot simpler and the country enjoyed a much more prosperous economy. The crime rate was also low because anyone who was caught committing a crime would face a quick justice. “You could sleep with the door open and nobody would dare steal anything from you,” my mother always commented.
Trujillo did not bother with the small trivialities and bureaucracies of the justice system. And as in any society ruled by an oppressive dictator, Trujillo had a secret police that terrorized the population and instilled fears, creating suspicions among many.
El Generalissimo was assassinated in May 1961, the year I was born, and so by the time I was a teenager in the late ’70s, many of those who served under him were still around my neighborhood. Some of the men were still in the military. The mystique of Trujillo was very much palpable among the people.
Joaquin Balaguer, at one point Trujillo’s right-hand man, became president. Many people viewed his presidency as an extension of Trujillo’s reign but without the mass appeal and adulation from the masses. Balaguer was a hardliner, a well-educated man who despised university students and showered the poor with food baskets and toys. He was also a quiet and calculating operator who used his political shrewdness for political gain.
In short, Balaguer was a typical Latin American strongman. Unlike many men who were by Trujillo’s side and had climbed to the top by brute force, Balaguer did it by being his scribe and the architect of his policies. Balaguer did not take care of the military but rather used it as a tool of government. This and the fact that he was a lifelong bachelor and wifeless created rumors about his manhood—a dangerous thing for a leader in a country that values machismo. Yet, Balaguer was able to maintain a cozy relationship with the military.
And so in the late ’70s, right around the time of my adolescence, many people felt that the good times had already gone by. The Era of Trujillo had maintained a stable economy and even paid off the national debts. The ’70s, during which Balaguer was mostly president, were mired by oppression, political discourse, student protests, workers’ strikes, killings and disappearance of anyone labeled by the government radical or communist. There was also a stagnant economy and a public distrust of the uncontrollable private sector that raised the price of basic necessities at their own leisure. More than 15 years after the demise of Trujillo’s regime, the country was still trying to find itself.
Many had forgotten Trujillo’s crimes and his reign of brutality against the country. There was a sense of nostalgia, yet collective amnesia. They longed for the stability, prosperity, and a sense of national security that was common in the ’50s, even if it was at a price: the nonexistence of civil liberties and prevalent human rights violations. Trujillo’s regime had a paternal appeal for many Dominicans and it’s not a surprise that one of his many titles was Benefactor of the Nation.
By the late ’70s, my father had long left the military and emigrated to New York. “The military was never the same after Trujillo was killed,” my father lamented.
I was mostly raised by my mother, while my father left the country to look for a better future in Nueva York. Many times, I found myself going through my father’s old belongings. I admired his collections of military metals, photos, and a magazine of Trujillo that he so zealously kept private.
There is a photo of my father wearing the Dominican Air Force uniform with a ribbon on his chest and a picturesque background of palm trees and the ocean [seen in the collage above]. His dream was finally realized in this photo. There is another picture of my father with my mother and my grandmother [seen above]. They all look proud. My mother, next to her husband, who could count on him to provide for the family as long as he was in the military. My grandmother, who could also count on my father to help her economically and send her money to the countryside.
It was probably around the time these pictures were taken that my father was carrying out El Jefe’s crimes.
He was a small yet necessary piece of Trujillo’s gargantuan crushing and killing machine. Sometimes, I would get bits and pieces of his stories when he did not realize that I was around. Among friends, after a few cervezas and once the stupor of alcohol had dismantled away all his inhibitions, he would confess about being on patrol roaming the city for those deemed undesirables by the regime, “rompiendo cabezas,” or fracturing skulls, as he used to put it and “teaching them a lesson.”
There were many pictures of Trujillo. In those times, the ’50s, families were required to maintain pictures of El Jefe as a sign of loyalty toward the dictatorship. There was also that glossy magazine, probably commissioned by Trujillo. It had a biography of him and described his military triumphs and training. Trujillo had been trained and molded by the U.S. Marine Corps during the American occupation in 1918. The magazine also depicted the different types of armaments of the Dominican Armed Forces, planes, and troop marching. There were also ribbon-cutting ceremonies illustrating new facilities built by the dictator.
I grew up among all of these things. My parents longed for a past that would never return. Although my father had lived in the U.S. for more than five years by the late ’70s, he was reluctant to bring us here. He was hoping that his Santo Domingo would get better someday and he would be able to return. As such, he delayed his decision to bring us to the United States. I finally arrived in the winter of 1980 along with my mother and sister. My sister and I enrolled in community college and began English classes.
One day, my father sat me down and told me that I must either join the military or get a college education. He added that if I did not want to end up like him working in a factory, I had to learn English quickly. And so it was that in the fall of 1982, with a basic knowledge of the English language, I joined the U.S. Marines Corps. My father could not have been more proud of me when I return from basic training wearing the dress blue uniform. He carried a picture of me in that uniform in his wallet and he would show it to everyone.
I left the Marine Corps after three years to complete my bachelor’s degree. In 1990, after obtaining my degree, I started my civil service career working for the state of New Jersey. After that, I was my father’s favorite son. He always respected me for taking his advice. He did not have the same feelings for my sister because she never listened to him.
I eventually returned to military service in 1995. I joined the Army Reserve because I somehow missed the comradeship of the service and felt a sense of duty.
My father would go back to the Dominican Republic and visit his old friends from his military days. After all those years, he still kept in contact with them. My father would refer to this group of friends as “La Guardia Vieja,” or the old guard. Even after many years, he trusted his old military friends more than he trusted his brothers and other relatives.
My father passed away in 2004. When my sister was cleaning the house and giving away his belongings, I managed to keep the magazine and his old photos. I could not find his medals.
A few years later, one of his old friends from the military, who also happened to be my godfather, also passed away. Eventually, they all died off. In May of this year, Antonio Imbert Barrerra, one of the main plotters of Trujillo’s assassination, passed away at the age of 96.
The sense of military duty, derived from my father, has stayed in my family. In the spring of 2009, I was called to active duty and deployed to Iraq. One day during my deployment I called my wife, and she sounded very upset and frustrated. She told me that our youngest son, who had been born in New Jersey 19 years before, decided to join the U.S. Army and did not bother to tell anyone.
“If anything happens to him, you are responsible. You guys with all this military thing,” my wife exclaimed.
She knew one or two things because her father had also served in the Dominican military during the Era of Trujillo. She was also raised a few blocks away from the Dominican Air Force Academy. (The history of its building and construction had also been featured in the magazine I kept of Trujillo.)
In the winter of 2010, my oldest son, born in New Jersey in 1987, also joined the U.S. Army, and a few years later he served in Afghanistan.
Thank you for sharing your family’s story with our readers and me. I recognized your ambivalence over your father’s role, and I also saw you redeem him partially through your own choices and the example you set for your sons. That is as much as we can do as individuals: rise and continue to rise.
I also want to thank you for illustrating so candidly the complexities of Dominican masculinity, which is the most potent—perhaps toxic?—element of our culture to this day. As a woman, I have experienced it second-hand, as expectations for me are far different, but I have long recognized the limiting ways men are expected to define themselves in our country. Your father’s “dreams of becoming a high-ranking individual” attest to the lure of power and authority that compels many men—Trujillo being the ultimate example—to bend others’ lives to their will. That dynamic is still steeped in the structures of families, churches, schools, and other significant institutions that collectively define Dominican identity. In the end, it is a trap for the men, and an extended sentence for the rest of us.
I’m sure you and I could speak at length about your experiences, but I’ll draw this note to a close by thanking you again for your candor and honesty, both of which are so necessary to reach true understanding and attain meaningful change.
Update from another reader with a similar experience as Luis’s and mine:
My parents were both born and raised in the Dominican Republic and experienced first-hand the nefarious dictatorship of Trujillo. That trauma informed my upbringing as a Dominican American in New York City. As a result I have written a book Dividing Hispaniola: the Dominican Republic’s Border Campaign against Haiti, 1930-1961 and wrote and perform a one-man show called Eddie’s Perejil (which you can learn more about on my website). Coming to grips with the legacy of dictatorships and mass murder is critically important, particularly in the diaspora. I applaud your important contributions to our understanding of post-trauma, memory, and identity.
Five years ago, the flight vanished into the Indian Ocean. Officials on land know more about why than they dare to say.
1. The Disappearance
At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator.
These words came from an elderly woman sitting behind me on a late-night flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. The plane was dark and quiet. A man I assumed to be her husband murmured almost inaudibly in response, something to the effect of “I wish I was dead.”
I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help it. I listened with morbid fascination, forming an image of the man in my head as they talked. I imagined someone who had worked hard all his life in relative obscurity, someone with unfulfilled dreams—perhaps of the degree he never attained, the career he never pursued, the company he never started.
An ethnic Russian serving in Estonia’s military had something to hide. Now he’s in prison as a convicted traitor.
TALLINN, Estonia—Deniss Metsavas was visiting his relatives in Russia in the summer of 2007 when the incident occurred.
While out with his cousin at a nightclub in Smolensk, Metsavas struck up a conversation with an attractive woman he hadn’t met before. They hit it off and spent the night flirting and dancing before retiring to a sauna in the early hours of the morning. Though saunas in much of Russia are bathhouses where men drink vodka and are flagellated with oak leaves, this one was a sex motel. He and the woman slept together there, but feeling awkward about what was inevitably going to be a one-night stand, Metsavas went out to buy her flowers. “I cannot leave her money,” he recounted to me. “She’s not a prostitute.” Metsavas laid the bouquet by the bed, then returned to his relatives’ home to steal a few hours of sleep.
The mistakes of the past are fast creating a crisis for younger Americans.
The Baby Boomers ruined America. That sounds like a hyperbolic claim, but it’s one way to state what I found as I tried to solve a riddle. American society is going through a strange set of shifts: Even as cultural values are in rapid flux, political institutions seem frozen in time. The average U.S. state constitution is more than 100 years old. We are in the third-longest period without a constitutional amendment in American history: The longest such period ended in the Civil War. So what’s to blame for this institutional aging?
One possibility is simply that Americans got older. The average American was 32 years old in 2000, and 37 in 2018. The retiree share of the population is booming, while birth rates are plummeting. When a society gets older, its politics change. Older voters have different interests than younger voters: Cuts to retiree-focused benefits are scarier, while long-term problems such as excessive student debt, climate change, and low birth rates are more easily ignored.
In leaked audio, the home-goods retailer’s co-founder seemed surprised that his company was being forced to take a political stance.
Last week, as Americans reacted to news reports that children being held at the border werebeing denied food, water, and hygiene supplies, employees at a normally under-the-radar, Boston-based e-commerce company were having their own reckoning. According to someone familiar with the situation, during a “cursory review” of transactions on Wednesday, a worker at the home-goods retailer Wayfair noticed that the company had made a $200,000 sale of bedroom furniture to the government contractor BCFS. As it turned out, the furniture was to be used in a new detention center in Texas, where at least 1,600 migrant teenagers and children will reportedly be detained.
Workers began discussing the sale in person and on the company Slack, and by Friday had drafted a petition to management asking that Wayfair “cease all current and future business with BCFS” and “establish a code of ethics” for sales. Some 500 employees signed it that afternoon.
The TV legend possessed an extraordinary understanding of how kids make sense of language.
For the millions of adults who grew up watching him on public television, Fred Rogers represents the most important human values: respect, compassion, kindness, integrity, humility. On Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the show that he created 50 years ago and starred in, he was the epitome of simple, natural ease.
But as I write in my forthcoming book, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, Rogers’s placidity belied the intense care he took in shaping each episode of his program. He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children—the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience—tend to hear things literally.
An elite-college education is one of the few expensive things that is for sale, but that not everyone is allowed to buy.
Burner phones, FBI stakeouts, search warrants—Season 6 of The Wire? No, just our social betters street fighting their children’s way into elite colleges. In March, we got Operation Varsity Blues, which charged a group of wealthy parents and an alleged conman with conspiring to get lackluster students into posh colleges in a scheme so improbably complex that it triggered the use of the RICO statute. Earlier this month, Sidwell Friends School, bastion of the Washington, D.C., elite, was the site of a fantastical, Real Housewives of the Independent Schools cavalcade of hideous parental behavior, which apparently included a “verbal assault” on college counselors, secretly taping conversations with them, calling them from blocked phone numbers to run down other kids in the applicant pool, and trying to obtain copies of other students’ records.
Ahead of the first presidential debates, the nationwide squeeze on affordable housing has barely registered on the campaign trail.
LOS ANGELES—The problem is anything but invisible. Tent cities line freeway underpasses mere blocks from some of the richest zip codes in the nation. Rat infestations and human waste from makeshift encampments—such as those just outside city hall’s iconic Art Deco tower and the main downtown police precinct—are suspected in cases of flea-borne typhus and typhoid fever spread by contaminated food.
Those are the Joe Friday facts.
Yet the news this month that Los Angeles County’s homeless population grew by 12 percent last year—to just under 59,000 people, enough to fill Dodger Stadium to overflowing—still managed to shock this city’s civic and political establishment. Within the Los Angeles city limits alone, the increase was 16 percent, to more than 36,000 people. Overall, about three-quarters of homeless residents are living completely outside, without adequate sanitation, sparking fears of a public-health crisis and the spread of medieval diseases.
In part one of the Democratic Party’s first primary debates, the candidates did not go deep on substance.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates see abortion as a winning issue in the next election. That was clear from the first night of the party’s primary debates, where the politicians onstage vied to show how emphatically they support abortion rights. The candidates focused on fear: of the state-level abortion bans recently passed in places such as Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia; of the threat to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. Multiple candidates affirmed their support for expansive abortion rights, citing widespread support among Americans.
The candidates also conveniently avoided the most controversial and contested aspects of abortion policy, including limits on the procedure at any point in a pregnancy. Whether this dodge was intentional or the natural outcome of a quick-paced debate, it stood in contrast to one of the most memorable moments of the 2016 presidential debates, when Hillary Clinton endorsed abortion through the end of the third trimester of a pregnancy. So far this cycle, Democrats have been running to embrace the abortion-rights positions that poll well with voters, and steering clear of tougher questions. In reality, however, these nitpicky questions about abortion limits matter: These are the policy areas where most abortion fights actually happen at the federal level.
The president, in attempting to downplay E. Jean Carroll’s rape allegation against him, isn’t talking about attraction. He’s talking about protection.
“I’ll say it with great respect. Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened. It never happened, okay?”
That was Donald Trump, speaking yesterday with reporters from The Hill. The president was addressing, in part, the latest allegation of sexual assault to be brought against him, this time from the advice columnist and author E. Jean Carroll: In the mid-1990s, Carroll alleged in a recent essay, Trump, cornering her in a dressing room of the department store Bergdorf Goodman, raped her.
The Hill prefaced the headline of its published interview with an all-caps “EXCLUSIVE,” which is technically true but not fully: Trump, after all, has deployed the logic of “She’s not my type” many times before, in attempting to defend himself from charges of sexual misconduct. He used a similar dismissal as a presidential candidate in October 2016, after the former People magazine journalist Natasha Stoynoff accused him of attacking her—“He was pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat,” she said—during an interview she had conducted with him at Mar-a-Lago, in 2005: